Triumph of Form over Content
The Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord does Poor Theatre richly
By Richard Lord
Peter Brook is, of course, one of the truly legendary figures of world theatre. The boy wonder of the British theatre back in the 1940’s, he went on to become the most celebrated director the Royal Shakespeare Company ever employed, as well as an indispensable theatre theoretician. At one time, just about every Introductory theatre course in America and Britain would feature as required text a slim volume packed with stimulating ideas and prescriptions for making theatre healthy again - The Empty Space, by none other than Mister Brook.
Under the influence of Polish theatre director and theoretician Jerzy Grotowski, Brook devised his own version of “poor theatre”, which has since become his trademark. Moving far, far away from theatre as spectacle, Brook swung back to a powerful simplicity, reducing both sets and props to a minimum, relying on what he took to be the bedrock of true theatre - the purity of the text, the undiluted power of acting. In 1970, Brook left England and his comfortable aerie in the English theatre to set up his own experimental company in Paris, where he would work in French and other languages, some of which he had no knowledge of.
Le Costume, guesting at this year’s Singapore Arts Festival, is a recent offering of Brook’s theatre company, Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord. In many ways, it can serve as a textbook case study for Peter Brook’s brand of theatre: this is by no means a great play, but it is thoroughly engaging theatre. In the words of Peter Brooks’ beloved Shakespeare, this production is indeed “the thing itself.”
The original English version of Le Costume (French for “The Suit”) was penned by the late South African theatre producer and prolific writer Barney Simon. Simon based his play on a story by Can Themba, a black activist journalist based during his most fruitful period in Sophiatown, a Johannesburg suburb which saw a ferocious flowering of popular art forms during the 1950’s. Eventually, the South African regime saw this creativity as a serious threat and had Sophiatown razed, its residents scattered to other settlements and slums.
The simple story of Le Costume traces the rocky path to heartbreak trod by a young, black Sophiatown couple, Matilda and Philemon. As the play opens, Matilda and Philemon would seem to basking in the uncomplicated delights of a perfect marriage. Philemon is a dream husband for 1950’s South Africa: devoted to his wife, he pampers her, “treats her like a queen” as she readily admits. (A short prelude to this introductory scene shows us the exploitative nature of more typical marriages of the period.)
One day on his way to work, Philemon is slapped with a devastating piece of news from a friend - his beloved Matilda has been hosting a lover while her unsuspecting husband is at work. Philemon immediately turns around, rushes home and catches Matilda and her paramour in the act. The terrified lover leaps from the bed and hauls ass out the window, leaving his fancy suit behind. So what does the bitterly cuckolded Philemon do with this memento of his wife’s illicit affair? Tear it apart thread by the thread? Burn it? Toss it into the trash bin? No; he decides it should remain in their home, even be treated as an honored guest. Matilda is ordered to set a place for the suit at every meal, and ultimately to feed it like a helpless child needing a mother’s care. And Philemon falls into the harsh role of a traditional Sophiatown husband.
From there the story skips along to its unforeseen ending, sprinkling the way with both comedy and pain. Finally a sad parable of the destructive force of jealousy and the wounded male ego, Le Costume excites and entertains not through the strength of its story but rather through the way it delivers that story. Brook and his very talented four-person cast spin this somewhat thin material into a most worthwhile evening of theatre. The occasional, well-timed insertions of the popular music Sophiatown was famous for also contribute splendidly to the success of this Le Costume.
Brook once more strips things down to the basics in order to draw the most out of those basics. The set looks like something thrown together in the final hours before performance: a simple cloth rug covering the floor and demarcating the tainted home, a single bed, mismatched chairs, two dressing-room clothing racks serving as walls and windows. Props, too, are creatively selected from the rummage sack of Poor Theatre. For instance, a clothes-hanger becomes a telephone, a multi-colored curtain a closet as well as a doorway. And the abandoned suit becomes a real, poisonous presence.
It all has the air of a master class in acting - and what masters these four actors are. Karen Aldridge as Matilda, Isaac Koundé as Philemon, Hassane Kouyaté and Tony Mpoudja in a medley of roles all carry the plot along in a totally compelling manner. The evening contains so many basic acting tricks, things that really shouldn’t work anymore - men playing women, an actress using her right arm to animate a suit, making it look like an importunate suitor that has her in its clutches - but they all work wondrously here. And the reason they work so well is the abundant skills and stage control of the performers.
The comedy rolled out here is simple and deft, but the actors do not falter for a single beat when the tale calls for heights or depths of emotions. There are several moments which still flare incandescently in my memory. Two of them are linked: Matilda, a former Sophiatown nightclub singer, performs for friends at a party, to hearty applause. The exuberance of her joy at recapturing an audience’s love spreads in warm waves from her face through her entire body. But moments later, in a churlish relapse into vindictiveness, Philemon cracks this joy right down the middle when he again hauls out the reviled suit. The pain and humiliation spills out across the performance space.
Then, in the show’s climatic scene, as Philemon makes one last terrible discovery, the actor’s lips pulse as if the character is chewing on something bitter that he just can’t swallow. Here we see acting which wordlessly delivers its own moving text.
Finally, this show represents the triumph of form over content. It richly deserves to be seen, and anyone who’s interested in theatre in a beautiful, pure form should make his/her way over to NUS before Le Costume moves on to its next station.
Le Costume plays at the University Cultural Centre Theatre on 12-14 Jun 2002 (8pm). Tickets are available from SISTIC.QLRS Vol. 1 No. 4 Jul 2002